Guest Contribution by Jordan Nikoloyuk
Since Ecology Action Centre published ‘Valuing our Fisheries: Breaking Nova Scotia’s Commodity Curse’, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our key findings.
The report shows that if we want fisheries that provide economically viable livelihoods in coastal communities, we have to start thinking about more than just exporting cheap protein. The global ‘race to the bottom’ of commodity food prices isn’t helping anyone. Exporting fish will always be part of the picture, but Atlantic Canada is missing out on opportunities to increase value by tapping into local and regional markets hungry for sustainable, local seafood.
We’ve had a lot of interest in the report from media, politicians, government employees, and – maybe most exciting of all – fishermen and the seafood industry. One question that we keep getting, though, is a big one: Why try to fight trade globalization? Aren’t lower prices better for everyone?
To understand why lower prices aren’t always such a good thing, we need to ask what our fisheries are for and what we want to get from them. I think our fisheries should be managed to bring the maximum benefits to people that live in coastal communities, and that means that we need policies that support that connection.
Employment in the fishery
One of the findings that people seem really interested in is our comparison of employment figures with different gear types. We looked at landing and dockside monitoring reports and found that haddock harvested by bottom longline fishermen generated more than three times as much employment than when harvested by trawlers. For us, that’s an argument in favour of using bottom longlines, but to some people, it actually seemed like a reason to invest more in trawlers!
Other than environmental devastation, there are a few reasons not to get too enthused about this more ‘efficient’ method of fishing. Larger trawler boats cost more to build and have higher costs, meaning that revenue doesn’t translate into take-home pay. They can also produce a lower quality product.
More importantly, remember that whenever we talk about fisheries we’re talking about a public resource. The question shouldn’t be, “how can we catch fish the cheapest?” Rather, it should be, “what do we want from our fisheries?” I want our fisheries to provide meaningful livelihoods for people living in coastal communities. Other people might want our fisheries to generate shareholder profits for seafood companies; if that’s the goal, then ‘efficient’ boats that keep labour costs low and ignore the long-term ecological health of the fishery are probably the way to go.
But what are our fisheries for?
Employment in seafood processing
As my colleague Dave Adler always puts it: “The best seafood in our province drives straight from the wharf to the airport without stopping.” When you compare Nova Scotia with other coastal parts of the world, it’s pretty hard to get fresh, local seafood.
We surveyed some processors around the province about the challenges of processing more local fish and were kind of surprised by the results. We heard that there weren’t enough fish but also the exact opposite – that there was too much fish! You see, when people say that Nova Scotia’s processing sector “isn’t competitive” what they often mean is that Nova Scotians can’t or won’t process enormous volumes of fish for incredibly low wages. Or, they mean that we don’t have enough machinery in our plants and try to do too much work by hand.
What this means is that when it comes to the large volumes that trawlers can land, it actually makes more ‘economic’ sense to ship whole fish around the world to China for processing and then back to the province as fillets or fish sticks. We have fewer fishermen, our processing plants close down, and we lose any chance to brand Nova Scotian seafood.
This story isn’t all that unique in today’s globalized world, but it is easy to forget that the ‘savings’ in processing are a cost to the province. It’s the same question as before – what do we want to use our fisheries for?
How much can we really change?
One reporter asked me, “So what’s your answer – just get people to pay more?”, and yes, that’s obviously a part of it. There are markets that want to hear the stories of community-based fishermen that produce high-quality, sustainable seafood, and are willing to pay fair prices to support their local food producers.
We’re working right now on figuring out exactly what these markets need and how we can get our sustainable seafood to them. There’s other work to do, and we’ll always be exporting seafood, but the economy is definitely changing. Now that our currency exchange rates don’t give us a natural price advantage over the rest of the world, it’s pretty clear that our industry has to approach the marketplace in a new way – and telling meaningful stories about our small-scale fisheries is a start.
How much of a difference will it make if we start to value our small-scale fisheries? I don’t know for sure. But I do know that I’m not ready to give up on Atlantic Canada’s rural, coastal communities or the sustainable fishery livelihoods that they depend on. We’re not working to rebuild fish stocks so that we can forget about the jobs that they provide. If we want our fisheries to benefit coastal communities, we have to remind ourselves that they’re a public resource and make the effort to manage them properly.
Jordan Nikoloyuk is the Sustainable Fisheries Coordinator at Ecology Action Centre and SmallScales’ most frequent contributor.